'Admission': Worth the price
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Up until this very moment, Tina Fey, of "Saturday Night Live" and "30 Rock" fame, has been a member of the unfortunate club of smart and talented television comic actors who get trapped in pretty dumb and largely unfunny movies. Yes, "Mean Girls" was a notable exception. No, "Baby Mama," despite the presence of Amy Poehler and a few good bits of schtick, wasn't a good movie. And, yes, I'm pretty sure your memory of "Date Night" is as fresh and unpleasant as my own. But I'm here to tell you that if the specter of "Date Night," combined with the pedestrian quality of the trailers for this film is maybe keeping you from enthusiastically checking out "Admission," do not let this happen. "Admission" is not only the best movie Fey has had her name attached to as an actress since the very good "Mean Girls," it's a very nearly first-rate picture in every respect. Unexpectedly smart and unexpectedly wise, it's also one of the better romantic comedies to arrive in movie theaters in a while Doubling the pleasant surprise is the fact that it's directed by Paul Weitz, whose last picture, the lost-parent saga "Being Flynn," was a morose misfire.
This picture is adapted from a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz and stars Fey as Portia, a Princeton admissions officer. Conscientious and bright, and wary of giving reflexive go-passes to "perfectly tutored organically-fed millennials," Portia had nevertheless gotten maybe a little too inured to her high-pressure job and a little too cozy in her low-impact personal life. Trading barbs with a competitive co-worker played by Gloria Reuben (they're both after the head position soon to be vacated by their supervisor, played by Wallace Shawn) and campus gossip with her live-in beau (played by Michael Sheen), she's due for some shakeups. A minor one comes in the form of a phone call from John (Paul Rudd) the head of an "alternative" high school located on a farm. John wants Portia to check out his operation and one student in particular. The next shakeup comes when Sheen's boyfriend announces, just before a faculty party starts, that he's leaving Portia for another academic that he's just knocked up.
A foray to John's rustic alternative school introduces further unusual characters, including Portia's highly abrupt radical feminist mom (Lily Tomlin) and farm school prodigy Jeremiah (Nat Woolf), who, according to John, may be...wait for it...the son that Portia gave up for adoption while herself in college. The complacent but still tightly-wound Portia is not ready for any of this, and certainly not for her undeniable but to her mind highly undesirable attraction to John. But her sympathies and her undeniable affinity for both the man and the boy who may be hers lead her to act in some unusual ways, a couple of them downright maternal.
Fey's character here is not nearly as much of a knowing caricature as her "30 Rock" persona Liz Lemon--that is, she's a more credible idea of an actual person--but the role is not so dissimilar that viewers who loved the show won't be happy to see the actress playing it. The movie's plot complications are as deftly handled as its witty dialogue is delivered. And there's plenty of witty dialogue. Early on, talking about the upcoming party to her still-in-residence fellow, Portia asks if "that horrible wolf woman" will be coming, and Sheen replies, with mild indignation, that the woman is "the preeminent Virginia Woolf scholar." Well played. Furthermore, Rudd and Fey display real chemistry while playing characters whose situations in life are, in their specifics, pretty far from standard-issue rom-com first-world crises, but have enough general resonance to evoke viewer affinity. As you may have noticed from their names, the supporting cast is first-rate, and this extends all the way across the board, not just with respect to names like Tomlin. Weitz keeps the movie percolating throughout, handling quasi-fantasy scenes in which potential Princeton students manifest themselves before the admissions board to make their pitches with as sure a hand as the fresh and funny exchanges between Fey and Rudd. If Fey ends up making movies as good as this one over the next few years, television's loss will have been cinema's gain, for real.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.